Most people, even in the IT sector, forget that personal computing was the second—or perhaps the third—generation of computing. Before that all computers were single units, mainframes as they came to be called, programmed centrally and later accessed by dumb terminals with screens and keyboards.
Nearly half a century later, today’s computing is conceptually not all that different. Our terminals are smart and portable devices—with vivid colour screens and hifi sound—and computing capabilities comparable to PCs. Our central computers are no longer single units. They are data centres, ranging from modest in-house banks of servers and storage to the giant facilities of Internet service providers like Google, Amazon, Microsoft and many others. In between are the growing ranks of third party data centres providing resources for their clients, from multinationals to SMEs.
The data centre is today’s computer. It has been transformed by the Internet into a data processing factory, a facility that is equipped with the highest levels of communications connectivity, power supply, data storage and computing power. Organisations use data centres because they are so much better equipped than any but giant multinationals could budget for.
Data centres are transforming ICT and in turn spurred to transform themselves. If a data centre of any scale is not capable of state-of-the-art performance it is no longer competitive. On the other hand, the bulk of data traffic is ‘normal’. It may be a central computer but it is not generally a supercomputer with top processing performance. It is more like a super-hub, with an expected range of service capabilities at a market leading level—connectivity, data storage and computing. The three are inextricable, but they are generally in that order of importance to the clients and end users.
Security is a key factor. Physical security has always been a feature of data centres, probably from their original military counterparts. It is still important, but cybersecurity and data protection are increasingly a valuable function of the data centre for clients.
Cloud computing in all of its forms continues to be a major driver of the growth of data centres. An overlapping market driver is online entertainment and other content as scheduled television is gradually superseded by streamed or downloaded video. By contrast, financial markets are data light but have a need for light speed—algorithmic trading competes in microseconds—driving the establishment of data centres and fibre cabling in proximity to major financial centres.
All in all, today’s data centres are digitally transforming and transformative for their clients. They are investing in both state-of-the-art and leading edge technologies to serve their clients’ needs, from advanced multi-core optical fibre connections to flash and SSD data storage. Data centres are now one of the most competitive sectors in the IT services sector. As always, that follows the 80/20 rule: 80 per cent of their clients’ requirements are fairly standard, almost commodity services these days. But 20 per cent or even more today are digital industries, dealing in data from high resolution video to online analytics. That is the Olympics of ICT, but 365/24 and not in four-year cycles.